Schuster on American Graffiti

ST. LOUIS, MO (Mar. 2, 2015) On Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, American Graffiti was screened as part of Webster University's Centennial Film Series "A Century Through Cinema." School of Communications Professor and author Joe Schuster was scheduled to introduce the film. Although unable to attend, he shared a personal essay and his observations about the film.                             

When American Graffiti came out in 1973, I went to see it three or four times in a theater because, many ways, the film seemed about me.  I was twenty then, roughly the age of the main characters—although their story was set nearly a decade earlier—but I really saw so much of my own life in theirs.
American Graffiti movie poster thumbnail
The film takes place in a single long night in 1962–really the last night of summer – and centers on a group of friends who spend from dusk to dawn riding around the circuit of their small California town, listening to rock-and-roll radio and talking. Not much of great consequence happens: one of the characters tries to tell his girlfriend that he thinks they should start dating other people, another character meets a girl, another sees a girl he is interested in and spends the night chasing after her, and another character has a drag race. There's petty vandalism and one car crash . . . and a lot of boys trying to meet girls and girls trying to meet boys.

While there is an ensemble cast—there are eight significant characters in the movie—it's really, in the end, about two of them, Steve Bolander (who's played by Ron Howard) and Curt Henderson (who's played by Richard Dreyfuss). It's supposed to be their last night in town before they fly off the next morning to start college back east. As the film opens, however, Curt is not sure he wants to go. In fact, it becomes clear almost right away that he does not want to go. This, in fact, really becomes the central dramatic question of the film: to stay or to go. As a character says in the film, "Why should I leave home to find a new home?"

In a lot of ways, that was what my life was like when I was 20. I was living in a small town called Barnesville, Ohio, where I had moved when I was 17, from Cincinnati. There, I went to a large all-boys Jesuit High School, and in Barnesville, I suddenly found myself in a co-ed rural high school that was a third the size of the school where I'd been going. Barnesville had a population of around 4,000 and to give you an even better sense of the world, the nearest city of any real size was Wheeling, West Virginia, which was 30 miles east and had a population of 50,000.

Like the characters in American Graffiti we really had nothing to do with our time on the weekends and so, like them, our entire social lives centered on riding around the streets of the town, over and over and over, listening to music and talking. Also, like the characters in American Graffiti, the people who lived in the town tended to stay there. In my graduating class of 120, perhaps 30 went off to college, while the rest stayed in town to work in the mines or on their father's farms or in a shop or to get married and have families. 

I was one of the thirty, and did go off to college and then Ron Howard and other cast members - American Graffitieventually moved two thousand miles away before ending up in St. Louis but I was also a lot like Curt, who was really the character I most identified with, because, like him, I did not want to leave town. In the year and a half of high school in the town, I'd made friends I did not want to leave behind and there was a girl I liked; I wanted to go to work in the coalmines, where I'd heard you could make six dollars an hour—this was when minimum wage was a dollar sixty cents—and had several loud arguments with my father, who told me he was not going to allow me to work in the mines and that I was, indeed, going to college.

I tell you all of this to explain one of the reasons I love the movie so much. I think all the movies we love are personal in some way—we don't see them as merely stories about other people but, in some fundamental way, they are about ourselves: It was not just that I was interested in Curt as a character, he was me and I was him. (Besides, even beyond who he is on the night when the film takes place – a recent high school graduate who doesn't want to leave his small town to go to college—we learn at the end of the film that he becomes a writer, and that was what I wanted to be.)

I don't think I am alone in the way the film connected to me. As evidence of this, consider that in his review of the film when it came out, the late Roger Ebert—who called it "brilliant" when he reviewed in on its release—spends much of his review talking about the ways the film connected to him and his life.  Although his review in The New York Times does not talk about how he might connect to the characters the way that Ebert did (and I did), Stephen Farber does say that watching the film is a "primal experience" and "like going home."

Part of the reason the film has this quality is that it was a very personal film for George Lucas, who had grown up in Modesto, California, and was the same age as Curt and Steve in 1962—eighteen. He had spent his nights cruising and wanted to capture that lifestyle in the film. Like another of the characters – the drag racer John Milner – he had also raced cars, until he had an accident that nearly killed him.

American Graffiti was his second feature film after a science fiction film called THX 1138, which came out in 1971 and that grew out of a short student film that Lucas made when he was in the USC film school. That movie did miserably at the box office – it grossed less than a million dollars in its initial release—but it did get Lucas attention, partly because it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
 
The story goes that while Lucas was working on THX 1138, Francis Ford Coppola suggested that he try to make a film that would be more appealing to a mass audience and so Lucas settled on trying to do something about the cruising culture he'd loved. He had a hard time finding anyone interested in the project – it got rejected by a number of major studios before Universal gave him the go-ahead. One of the things that convinced them was that Lucas asked Coppola – who had recently made The Godfather–to act as producer on the film and Universal liked that they could promote it as being from the man who had made The Godfather.

Even with Coppola attached, Lucas still not have much money to make the film: its production budget ended up at just a bit more than three-quarters of a million dollars, a small-budget film even by the standards of around 40 years ago when it came out.

Lucas cast primarily unknowns in the film – perhaps the only one who had any name recognition was Ron Howard, who had been a child star on "The Andy Griffith Show." Richard Dreyfuss had been a working actor for almost ten years, primarily in guest roles in television . . . although he has an uncredited but noticeable cameo in The Graduate, which came out six years earlier. The other actors had similar experience to Dreyfuss—or even less—but one of the most interesting side stories about the movie is what happened to so many of the people connected to it after its release.

Howard went on to become one of the most successful directors and producers in Hollywood – he has done A Beautiful Mind, Cocoon, Apollo 13 and Cinderella Man, among other films. Dreyfus won an Oscar for The Goodbye Girl five years after he made American Graffiti, and has appeared in close to 100 films. Paul LeMat was nominated for a Golden Globe for what is really an underappreciated film, Melvin and Howard. Cindy Williams, who plays Steve's girlfriend, Lori, starred in "Laverne and Shirley" and Candy Clark, who plays Debbie, the girl that Terry the Toad meets, got an Oscar nomination for supporting actress for her role in the film and has accumulated some interesting credits, including one in a Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth.

The biggest star to come from the film was Harrison Ford, who had little more than a handful of credits when Lucas cast him as the character Bob Falfa, who faces Milner in the pivotal drag race at the end of the film. At the time, Ford was supporting himself as a carpenter. Later, of course, he went on to create two of the most iconic roles in film history – Han Solo in the Star Wars series and Indiana Jones.
Harrison Ford in American Graffiti
Lucas, of course, became one of the most influential people in the industry – partly for his Star Wars series but also for his creation of Industrial Light and Magic.

A few notes about the film and then a final comment about a couple of interesting aspects of the film, including what I think is perhaps one of the most important aspects of it.

First of all, when Lucas made the film, he was trying to achieve the look of a documentary, so he deliberately chose a film stock that would give him a grainier look. Some of the actors have said that Lucas's desire for a natural feel to the film led him to keep retaking scenes—not because there were problems in the takes, but because there were no missteps, and that was what he wanted for the feel of the film he sought.  In one scene, for example, Terry the Toad asks an adult going into a liquor store to buy a bottle of booze for him. When the man comes out, he tosses a bag to Terry with the booze in it and Terry is supposed to catch it. Take after take, the actor (Charles Martin Smith) caught it without a hitch until one take, when he nearly drops the bottle and that was the one that Lucas printed because it was the one that looked flawed and therefore more natural. Also, notice at the beginning of the film when Terry the Toad rides up on his scooter. He was supposed to merely jump the curb with his front tire, but Smith lost control of the scooter and crashed it into the side of the building. That was the take that Lucas decided to use because it was a mistake.

The film is also structured like a cruise—notice how we keep circling back to the diner, Mel's, just after crucial scenes in the film; it's a landmark in the structure the same way it would have been for teenagers cruising the town. Lastly—and you cannot help but notice this—the wall to wall soundtrack of the film, the constant radio music and chatter of Wolfman Jack, the disc jockey.  When Lucas was writing his draft of the script—which he sent later to his two co-writers so that they could particularly work on the scenes between Steve and Lori (Howard and Williams)—he had in mind a specific song for each scene or sequence, and you may notice how the stwo cars racing in the street from American Graffitiongs connect the characters, not only to the story but to one another, like some sort of web.

One more note: you will notice that three of the four main male characters have a female partner: Steve, the former school president, has his girlfriend, Lori, the captain of the cheerleaders. Terry has Debbie—a truly unlikely pairing, but one that works—and John Milner has Judy, a 12-year-old girl that he gets stuck with against his will as he makes his circuit. (She's played by Mackenzie Phillips). The only one who does not have a female companion is Curt, who spends his night chasing an elusive and mysterious blonde in a white T-Bird (the blonde is played by Suzanne Somers, later the star of "Three’s Company" and spokesmodel for the Thighmaster). In an early conception for the film Lucas considered suggesting to the audience that the blonde does not actually exist, but is a romantic apparition. The pairings—and the lack of pairing for Curt—are appropriate, given the resolution for each of the characters.

Lastly I want to talk about something that is not in the film. It's interesting that it takes place in the end of summer 1962, which, historically, is really the last moment when the film could be set. The world of the characters is insular, almost claustrophobic, They keep driving, putting miles on their cars, but never getting anywhere except for back where they started. There is, for all purposes, no world outside the circuit they make. There are no politics (except that we learn that Curt's ambition is to shake hands with John F. Kennedy). There is, interestingly given the year, almost no television, save for one scene, when Curt sits on the hood of a car, watching a display of televisions flickering in a department store window, showing an episode of the iconic 1950s series, Ozzie and Harriett. It's appropriate that there is a pane of glass between him and the TVs and that they play in silence, because he cannot get out of the world he is in and the world outside his world can barely get into his.

But there are cracks in the world—we mostly see this in the character of John Milner, who is a bit older than the other characters but who, someone says, wants to stay 17 forever. Milner does not like change. He complains at one point that the strip is shrinking, that the circuit the kids make when they cruise is getting smaller. At one point, a Beach Boys song comes onto the radio in his car and he switches it off. He hates surfing music, he says, and thinks that Rock and Roll has been going downhill since Buddy Holly died (which was in 1958).

The characters don' t know that their world is about to not only change but also explode on them. Just before the end of the summer when the film is set, the Beatles fired Pete Best as their drummer and replaced him with Ringo Starr, and not long after the night the film takes place, they will record their first single. A few months before the night of the film, three of the members of the original Rolling Stones met one another for the first time, and so the British invasion is on the horizon. Less than two months after the night of the film, the Cuban Missile Crisis will perhaps bring the world to the nearest edge of nuclear war in our history and roughly a year after that Curt's hero, Kennedy, will be dead. That same year, also, the US will send 16,000 troops to Vietnam, to a war where they previously had few US troops involved.  A few months before the night of the film, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, and about a month before the day on which the film is set, the communications satellite Telstar transmitted the first transatlantic television signal.

This, as much as anything, I think, is what the film is about –what the film does not say but which we now know as historical fact.

In a way, I like to think of American Graffiti as being a sort of anti-Wizard of Oz. In that 1939 classic, the message at the end is, "There's no place like home." As Dorothy says at the end, "if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with."

In other words, don't leave home. As I've said, there is an echo of this in American Graffiti: "Why should I leave home to find a new home?" In the end of course, one of the characters in this film leaves home, just as I did—but in a larger sense, because of these things I cite that the film does not mention, but which were there at that point in history, even what they considered their home was no longer going to be in a very short while.

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